The Spartan seniors won’t be the only members of the football program to be honored Friday night.
Starpoint head coach Al Cavagnaro will coach his final regular season home game Friday night, stepping away from the program’s head gig since the longtime coach is planning to retire from his teaching position in June. Cavagnaro may shy away from the attention on most gamedays, but he won’t be able to take a backseat this time around.
The Spartan-lifer will be honored in a surprise pregame ceremony on ‘Coach Al Cavagnaro Night,’ which will be followed by a senior night presentation for the class of 2020 and a jersey presentation for former athletic director and current athletics facilitator Tom Sarkovics.
Cavagnaro has had just about every role you could think of during his 34 seasons with the football program — he would start out as a junior varsity assistant in 1986, before he took over as the JV head coach for the next six seasons. Then in 1993 he was promoted to an assistant on the varsity, a position he served in for the next seven years.
After a tough four-year stint at the helm for Sarkovics, Cavagnaro would take things over as the head coach in 2000. Sarkovics was happy to see Cavagnaro fill in for him and he applauds him for how he has dedicated himself to the athletic department.
“He’s just an outstanding coach. He’s coached for us in basketball as well over the years,” Sarkovics said of Cavagnaro, who also served as a junior varsity and modified basketball coach during his tenure. “He’s just a good all-around coach.”
Starpoint had been a powerhouse program in the 1980’s, making three trips to ‘Rich Stadium’ in a five-year span. The program would fall on hard times in the 90’s though, which Sarkovics and Cavagnaro had front row seats for as coaches on the staff.
Once Cavagnaro took over for him, Sarkovics was relieved because he knew the program was in the right hands.
Initially, things didn’t come easily for ‘Coach Cav’ either though. He would eventually produce back-to-back winning seasons from 2005-06, before doing so again in 2010-11. Each year along the way, the program was inching closer and closer to reattaining high level success.
And that’s when things all started to fall into place for Cavagnaro and the team itself. For years, the Spartans played on a slow-track grass field that was helpful in the team’s power-run, pro-style offensive attack. Then came the new athletic complex renovations that saw a turf field being installed, the addition field lights to be able to host Friday night football games and upgrades to the school’s fitness center and weight room.
The district saw the dedication that he and his staff had towards the program and they were able to reap the benefits of it. To see the program blossom into what it is today has been built on the foundation of Cavagnaro’s tight-knit staff and his players.
Cavagnaro has seen the likes of Tyler Robinson and Evan Majewski running their ways into the Spartans record book, players like Steve Wilde and Kyle Schreader paving the way up front to All-WNY seasons, and big names like Aaron Chase, Tajay Ahmed and Maxim Bowden winning divisional titles and taking a trip to ‘New Era Field’ for the sectional championship game.
Assistant coach Tim Racey has also been front and center as to what the Cavagnaro era has been like, joining the Spartans staff back in 1998. He will be handed the keys to the #OneStarpoint car once Cavagnaro steps down, as he is positioned to take over as the team’s next head coach.
Racey feels so prepared because Cavagnaro has given him the license to drive the program onwards for years to come
“We’ve been together for a very long time ... and I hate to say it but he’s laid down the framework for a successful transition,” Racey said. “It’s almost like he’s (left) the keys to the Cadillac here.”
Racey shared just how impactful Coach Cav has been to Starpoint football, who helped guide the program in winning three consecutive Class A divisional titles from 2015-17.
“Everything that we are right now is because of his hard work and dedication,” Racey said. “Behind the scenes, a lot of people don’t see the amount of time that him and his family put into this program. He doesn’t want any type of recognition or anything like that. ... He doesn’t (want that). It’s not about him.”
Often times, Cavagnaro will send reporters — myself included — to go and interview his assistant coaches to handle post-game interviews, because he never wants himself to be the focus. When it came to handling coaching duties too, Racey said that Cavagnaro would never want to intrude on his coordinators and just let them do their jobs freely.
Racey also talked about the very small details Coach Cav accentuates that have helped put their program over the top.
“There’s so many little, tiny nuances ... it’s not just X’s and O’s that he’s good about,” Racey said. “It’s about how he coaches kids, how he treats kids ... It’s the bond that he generates with the kids that’s so special.”
The longtime assistant said that it has been remarkable how he learned from Cavagnaro in trying to jumpstart the program as young coaches, seeing himself go from telling kids what they need to do for them and the coaches, to now players doing things for them out of their respect factor for their coaching prowess.
“Instead of telling them they’ve gotta run through a brick wall, you end up coaching kids and they want to run through a brick wall for you,” Racey said. “And that’s kind of what he’s taught me over the years; Change your philosophy and manage the kids and the game will take care of itself.”
Racey mentioned how Coach Cav is such a beloved figure that he has many alumni coming back to see him each fall and that he’s so affable that walking through town with him is like “walking around with the mayor,” with the amount of people that he knows. He said the situation is “bittersweet,” especially for someone who has given everything to the program and has supported the Racey family through tough times as well.
The future head man just hopes that his predecessor will stick around the program in some capacity, which Cavagnaro has told him he plans to do.
“He said he’s gonna be around, but I hope he sticks around a lot more than he says he is,” Racey said. “Because it’s gonna be very tough without him around here. These are huge shoes to replace.”
For more from sports reporter Khari Demos, follow him on Twitter @riri_demos. Also, make sure to tune into Khari as a guest on Tony Caligiuri’s ‘Inside High School Sports,’ Saturday at 10 a.m. on WGR500.